Make Incline Dumbbell Presses & Rows Better

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Make Incline Dumbbell Presses & Rows Better

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

Incline dumbbell exercises such as incline dumbbell rows and incline dumbbell presses are some of my go-to staple movements for effectively implementing isolateral versions of horizontal presses and pulls.  I also consistently incorporate single arm or unilateral variations into my training as well as that of my athletes and clients as a means of simultaneously addressing core activation and rotary stability during upper body emphasized movements.  However, recently I’ve found that performing ipsilateral versions of incline dumbbell presses and rows not only makes the movements more difficult but the level of core stabilization, abdominal activation, rotary stability, and overall motor control involved is difficult to match with any other upper body presses and rows.  Here’s how to perform each.

Ipsilateral Incline Dumbbell Chest Press

Although the ipsilateral incline dumbbell press can be performed with the head on the bench I recommend the head-off protocol as demonstrated by my awesome bodybuilding client Ben Lai.  That’s because it not only provides less body support (thereby further emphasizing core stability and balance) but it also allows better t-spine extension via enhanced cervical elongation since the head is not compressed into a rigid surface.  

Once you adjust your body position so that the base of your neck is placed approximately at the top edge of the bench, simple lift your contralateral leg off the ground and keep the ipsilateral leg on the floor.  In other words when performing the press with your right arm you’ll want to elevate your left leg off the floor and visa versa. Trying to perform this in the opposite fashion with the contralateral leg on the floor and the ipsilateral leg elevated makes it overly difficult in terms of balance and stability ultimately minimizing the overload effect.  Performing these in the ipsilateral fashion as shown in the video provides ample instability while also allowing significant overload to the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

These are also surprisingly brutal on the pectorals as the anti-rotation component also provides a strong abduction stimulus to the shoulder of the working arm.  To resist these strong abduction forces the lifter will be required to squeeze the chest throughout (similar to an isometric fly/adduction position) as means of keeping that working arm drifting too far out to the side of the torso.  As a result, the pectorals get pulverized.

I’ve also found that this is one of the most effective chest pressing variations for teaching individuals how to avoid collapsing at the bottom position.  Proper ROM for any press involves an elbow position of approximately 90 degrees with the tricep or elbow moving to the same position as the plane of the torso.  If the lifter moves past 90 degrees or allows the humerus to move past the plane of the torso (both of which represent faulty positions) the lifter will be immediately punished with excessive destabilizing forces.

Don’t be surprised if you also feel your core muscles screaming as you’ll be working overtime to keep your body from flipping off the side of bench.  In addition, the glute, hamstrings, and hip muscles of the support leg will be receiving intense stimulation as you’ll be required to activate these muscles very aggressively to help lock your body in.   Finally, the foot and ankle of the support leg will also be getting worked overtime.  In essence, you’ll be required to keep the foot of the support leg perfectly straight.  If it begins to rotate excessively outward it will become quite difficult to keep control of the movement and your body.  In other words this ipsilateral incline chest press represents a full body horizontal pressing exercise that taxes nearly every muscle from head to foot.

Ipsilateral Incline Dumbbell Row

The ipsilateral incline dumbbell row is not only surprisingly difficult but it also does wonders for improving horizontal pulling mechanics and rowing form.  It actually feels quite similar to a renegade row in terms of core activation and anti-rotation except it’s impossible to cheat or twist your body.  Here’s one of my NFL quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke showing how it’s done while also producing a strong isometric squeeze in the contracted position. 

Incline dumbbell rows are some of my favorite rowing exercises for crushing the upper back and lats. Unfortunately there’s very little core and abdominal activation occurring throughout as the lifter is simply resting his or her chest against the bench.  By performing these in an ipsilateral fashion not only does the lifter create a strong muscle mind connection with the lats as a result of being forced to slow the movement down and use smooth form but this taxes the daylights out of the entire core.  In fact, many of my athletes will comment that it feels like they’re about to be yanked off the side of the bench unless they aggressively fire their core and maintain tall and rigid posture.  Any deviation in spinal alignment or core activation will make these nearly impossible to perform especially with appreciable loads.

The ipsilateral row is also one of the most effective rowing exercises I’ve ever used for teaching proper range of motion during rows and horizontal pulls.  Most individuals overstretch in the bottom position of rows while allowing excessive protraction and shoulder rounding.  In addition many lifters tend to over-pull or over-row in the in the contracted position allowing the elbow to move too far past the torso.  Doing either of these will destabilize the spine making it difficult to maintain body position and motor control.  As a result the lifter will be required to terminate the end range of motion at the appropriate position which happens to be more compact than what’s typically preached in the fitness industry.  In other words it ingrains crisp 90-degree mechanics with optimal ROM not excessive ROM.

Practical Application

Try performing several sets of 5-8 reps of each of these during your next upper body workout.  I also recommend starting with half of the load you would typically use for the bilateral variations of these dumbbell movements.  However, over time you should be capable of using 70-75% of the loads you typically handle. In other words if you usually use 100 pound dumbbells then you should be able to handle 70 or 75 pounds for the ipsilateral incline dumbbell variations.

To learn more about programming ipsilateral, unilateral, and unstable variations into your training routine check out my Complete Templates